Before my brain recognized it, my body did. During the funeral Mass scene in The Devil’s Advocate, the sight of a huge white altar topped by a life-sized crucifixion made me involuntarily sit up in my seat (when delivered by a School Sister of Notre Dame, a whack in back of the head for slouching during Mass gets encoded on the cellular level). It took a second to realize my old parish church, Most Holy Redeemer on East Third Street, was onscreen with Al Pacino: God and the Godfather together at last.
When I attended, MHR’s only Hollywood connection — besides some establishing shots for Naked City in the 60’s — was the Legion of Decency list of approved and condemned movies in the church vestibule. We saw the inside of that church six days a week for eight years, which we thought was plenty. It was impossible to duck Mass on weekdays; we sat in rows with our classmates and our teachers sat behind us watching for misbehavior and latecomers. It was impossible to shirk Mass on Sunday because of the pastor, Father Rosenkranz.
A tall thin man of military posture and a booming voice, Fr. Rosenkranz kept us in the pews after Mass on Monday while he slowly patrolled the main aisle, reminding us that we all had to be at the Sunday 9 o’clock Mass. Not 10:30. Not Noon. He ended by asking everyone who wasn’t at 9 o clock mass to meet him in back of the church. It was like John Gotti suggesting you stop by his Social Club to discuss your IOU. Nobody dared escape because of his primitive, but effective, GPS. “We know when you attend,” he said ominously, “we have your names on the Sunday envelopes.” Busted!
Being a Catholic school kid in NYC was kind of like boot camp. You were drafted into a huge organization with centuries of tradition that required following lots of rules you didn’t understand, but all your friends were there. We were inside of the church more than we thought necessary, but one thing we knew as well as the Baltimore Catechism — it sure had atmosphere; life sized statues, huge stained glass windows, gigantic brass chandeliers, marble everywhere…it was Vegas without the slot machines. Best of all, up front where the first graders sat, a side chapel had a life sized wax figure of St. Datian, in Turkish dress, lying underneath the altar behind a glass panel. Not even Donald Trump had a costumed martyr on display! Every kid knew some story about seeing it move, especially if we snuck in after school to make patterns with the lit candles. “Go this way, you’ll make a cross! No, light that one, you’ll make a star!”
It offered mystery, color and pageantry while the laity tried to instill us with values. They used spectacle… processions with a parade of priests in embroidered vestments, the pastor holding the monstrance high and leading the chants in Latin. Little girls in white dresses walking ahead, dropping flowers in their path. The chanting and the aromatic tang of incense gave us our first contact high. It was hypnotic, but only temporarily…for some of us, anyway. Anna, a chubby dark haired killjoy, said it was wrong for flower girls to enjoy the attention, but everyone knew she was bucking for sainthood. When she got stuck in an elevator, she got on her knees and prayed instead of just pressing the alarm button. I asked her whom she invoked. “St. Joseph of Cupertino, silly. He’s the patron saint of flying,” she said. “Anna, it’s an elevator. It goes up and down. It doesn’t fly.” She gave me one of those sympathetic, ‘I’ll pray for you’ looks and walked away.
They tried persuasion, too. Especially during Vocation Week and Mission Sunday — prayers, sermons, lesson plans focused on vocations — it was like living in a PBS telethon, only less subtle. MHR, like many church schools, would let little kids dress like priests and nuns, which was fun for a day and gave non-Catholics the impression that Oz also had a seminary and a convent and was sending some munchkin priests and nuns to visit.
We didn’t know at the time that the church was fighting a rearguard action with popular culture. Now, MHR has been in so many movies and TV shows it should be offering Variety along with Catholic New York at the rear of the church. The carved wooden pulpit is gone, and so is the ornate marble altar rail. Instead of the Legion of Decency list, a vestibule sign advises ‘No Eating in Church’ — a notion so alien (What next? No Handball Playing?), I’m surprised Fr. Rosenkranz hasn’t emerged from the crypt beneath the church to administer a ghostly whack to the back of the head of these miscreants.
I shouldn’t be surprised, though. Now that more and more of our hometown is becoming a playground/theme park for ‘the New York Experience’ for newbies, tourists and rich visitors, all bets are off for behavior. A real New York Experience would be sitting in an un-air conditioned classroom in late May in a wool uniform trying not to move and hoping the bell would ring before Sister could discover you didn’t finish your homework.
But don’t get me started about that.